The prostate is a walnut-sized gland that forms part of the male reproductive system. The gland is made of two lobes, or regions, enclosed by an outer layer of tissue. The prostate is located in front of the rectum and just below the bladder. The prostate also surrounds the urethra, the canal through which urine passes out of the body. Scientists do not know all the prostate's functions. One of its main roles, though, is to squeeze ejaculatory fluid into the urethra as sperm move through during sexual climax.
It is common for the prostate gland to become enlarged as a man ages. Doctors call the condition benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), or benign prostatic hypertrophy. Although some of the signs of BPH and prostate cancer are the same, having BPH does not seem to increase the chances of getting prostate cancer.
As a man matures, the prostate goes through two main periods of growth. The first occurs early in puberty, when the prostate doubles in size. At around age 25, the gland begins to grow again. This second growth phase often results, years later, in BPH. Though the prostate continues to grow during most of a man's life, the enlargement doesn't usually cause problems until late in life. BPH rarely causes symptoms before age 40, but more than half of men in their sixties and as many as 90% in their seventies and eighties have some symptoms of BPH. As the prostate enlarges, the layer of tissue surrounding it stops it from expanding, causing the gland to press against the urethra like a clamp on a garden hose. The bladder wall becomes thicker and irritable. The bladder begins to contract even when it contains small amounts of urine, causing more frequent urination. Eventually, the bladder weakens and loses the ability to empty itself. Urine remains in the bladder. The narrowing of the urethra and partial emptying of the bladder cause many of the problems associated with BPH.
The cause of BPH is not well understood. BPH occurs mainly in older men and it doesn't develop in men whose testes were removed before puberty. Some researchers believe that factors related to aging and the testes may spur the development of BPH. Throughout their lives, men produce both testosterone, an important male hormone, and small amounts of estrogen, a female hormone. As men age, the amount of active testosterone in the blood decreases, leaving a higher proportion of estrogen. Studies done with animals have suggested that BPH may occur because the higher amount of estrogen within the gland increases the activity of substances that promote cell growth. Another theory focuses on dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a substance derived from testosterone in the prostate, which may help control its growth.
Many symptoms of BPH stem from obstruction of the urethra and gradual loss of bladder function, which results in incomplete emptying of the bladder. The symptoms of BPH vary, but the most common ones involve changes or problems with urination, such as
- a hesitant, interrupted, weak stream
- urgency and leaking or dribbling
- more frequent urination, especially at night
The size of the prostate does not always determine how severe the obstruction or the symptoms will be. Some men with greatly enlarged glands have little obstruction and few symptoms while others, whose glands are less enlarged, have more blockage and greater problems.
It is important to tell your doctor about urinary problems such as those described above. In 80% of cases, these symptoms suggest BPH, but they also can signal other, more serious conditions that require prompt treatment. These conditions, including prostate cancer, can be ruled out only by a doctor's examination. Severe BPH can cause serious problems over time. Urine retention and strain on the bladder can lead to urinary tract infections, bladder or kidney damage, bladder stones, and incontinence. If the bladder is permanently damaged, treatment for BPH may be ineffective. When BPH is found in its earlier stages, there is a lower risk of developing such complications.
Men who have BPH usually need some kind of treatment at some time. However, a number of recent studies have questioned the need for early treatment when the gland is just mildly enlarged. These studies report that early treatment may not be needed because the symptoms of BPH clear up without treatment in as many as one-third of all mild cases. Instead of immediate treatment, they suggest regular checkups to watch for early problems.
Since BPH may cause urinary tract infections, a doctor will usually clear up any infection with antibiotics before treating the BPH itself. Although the need for treatment is not usually urgent, doctors generally advise going ahead with treatment once the problems become bothersome or present a health risk.
The FDA has approved four drugs to relieve common symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate. Finasteride (marketed under the name Proscar), FDA-approved in 1992, inhibits production of the hormone DHT, which is involved with prostate enlargement. Its use can actually shrink the prostate in some men. The FDA also approved the drugs terazosin (Hytrin) in 1993, doxazosin (Cardura) in 1995, and tamsulosin (Flomax) in 1997 for the treatment of BPH. All three drugs act by relaxing the smooth muscle of the prostate and bladder neck to improve urine flow and to reduce bladder outlet obstruction. Terazosin, doxazosin, and tamsulosin belong to the class of drugs known as alpha blockers. Recent trials found that using finasteride and doxazosin together is more effective than either drug alone to relieve symptoms and prevent BPH progression. The two-drug cocktail reduced the risk of BPH progression by 67%, compared to 39% for doxazosin alone and 34% for finasteride alone.
In May 1996, the FDA approved the Prostatron, a device that uses microwaves to heat and destroy excess prostate tissue. In the procedure called transurethral microwave thermotherapy, the Prostatron sends microwaves through a catheter to heat selected portions of the prostate to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. A cooling system protects the urinary tract during the procedure. These procedures take about 1 hour and can be performed without general anesthesia. Neither procedure has been reported to lead to impotence or incontinence. While microwave therapy does not cure BPH, it reduces urinary frequency, urgency, straining, and intermittent flow. It does not correct the problem of incomplete emptying of the bladder.
Transurethral Needle Ablation.
In October 1996, the FDA approved Vidamed's Transurethral Needle Ablation (TUNA) System for the treatment of BPH. The TUNA System delivers low-level radiofrequency energy through twin needles to burn away a well-defined region of the enlarged prostate. Shields protect the urethra from heat damage. The TUNA System improves urine flow and relieves symptoms with fewer side effects when compared with transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP). No incontinence or impotence has been observed.
Most doctors recommend removal of the enlarged part of the prostate as the best long-term solution for patients with BPH. With surgery for BPH, only the enlarged tissue that is pressing against the urethra is removed; the rest of the inside tissue and the outside capsule are left intact. Surgery usually relieves the obstruction and incomplete emptying caused by BPH. The following sections describe the types of surgery that are used.
In this type of surgery, no external incision is needed. After giving anesthesia, the surgeon reaches the prostate by inserting an instrument through the urethra.
A procedure called TURP (transurethral resection of the prostate) is used for 90 percent of all prostate surgeries done for BPH. With TURP, an instrument called a resectoscope is inserted through the penis. The resectoscope, which is about 12 inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter, contains a light, valves for controlling irrigating fluid, and an electrical loop that cuts tissue and seals blood vessels.
During the 90-minute operation, the surgeon uses the resectoscope's wire loop to remove the obstructing tissue one piece at a time. The pieces of tissue are carried by the fluid into the bladder and then flushed out at the end of the operation. Most doctors suggest using TURP whenever possible. Transurethral procedures are less traumatic than open forms of surgery and require a shorter recovery period. Another surgical procedure is called transurethral incision of the prostate (TUIP). Instead of removing tissue, as with TURP, this procedure widens the urethra by making a few small cuts in the bladder neck, where the urethra joins the bladder, and in the prostate gland itself. Although some people believe that TUIP gives the same relief as TURP with less risk of side effects such as retrograde ejaculation, its advantages and long-term side effects have not been clearly established.
In the few cases when a transurethral procedure cannot be used, open surgery, which requires an external incision, may be used. Open surgery is often done when the gland is greatly enlarged, when there are complicating factors, or when the bladder has been damaged and needs to be repaired. The location of the enlargement within the gland and the patient's general health help the surgeon decide which of the three open procedures to use.
With all the open procedures, anesthesia is given and an incision is made. Once the surgeon reaches the prostate capsule, he scoops out the enlarged tissue from inside the gland. In 1996, the FDA approved a surgical procedure that employs laser fibers to vaporize obstructing prostate tissue. The doctor passes the laser fiber through the urethra into the prostate using a cystoscope and then delivers several bursts of energy lasting 30 to 60 seconds. The laser energy destroys prostate tissue and causes shrinkage. Like TURP, laser surgery requires anesthesia and a hospital stay. One advantage of laser surgery over TURP is that laser surgery causes little blood loss. Laser surgery also allows for a quicker recovery time. But laser surgery may not be effective on larger prostates. The long-term effectiveness of laser surgery is not known.
Sexual Function After Surgery
Many men worry about whether surgery for BPH will affect their ability to enjoy sex. Some sources state that sexual function is rarely affected, while others claim that it can cause problems in up to 30% of all cases. However, most doctors say that even though it takes a while for sexual function to return fully, with time, most men are able to enjoy sex again. Complete recovery of sexual function may take up to 1 year. The exact length of time depends on how long after symptoms appeared that BPH surgery was done and on the type of surgery. Following is a summary of how surgery is likely to affect aspects of sexual function.
- Erections Most doctors agree that if you were potent before surgery, you will probably be able to have erections afterward. Surgery rarely causes a loss of potency.
- Ejaculation Although most men are able to continue having erections after surgery, a prostatectomy frequently makes them sterile by causing a condition called "retrograde ejaculation" or "dry climax." During sexual activity, sperm from the testes enters the urethra near the opening of the bladder. Normally, a muscle blocks off the entrance to the bladder, and the semen is expelled through the penis. However, the coring action of prostate surgery cuts this muscle as it widens the neck of the bladder. Following surgery, the semen takes the path of least resistance and enters the wider opening to the bladder rather than being expelled through the penis. Later it is harmlessly flushed out with urine.
- Orgasm Most men find little or no difference in the sensation of orgasm, or sexual climax, before and after surgery. Although it may take some time to get used to retrograde ejaculation, you should eventually find sex as pleasurable after surgery as before.